Two decades ago a demon infestation changed the way we play games. Doom was first launched 20 years ago today, and while it wasn't the first game to let you play from a first-person perspective, it was the game that ushered the FPS genre into the mass consciousness. Today the likes of Halo and Call of Duty dominate sales charts, but it wasn't until Doom that people really saw the potential of a 3D game played from a first-person point of view — and that changed the kinds of games people started making.
"The genre of FPS is probably the most important thing that happened with Doom," says lead programmer and id Software co-founder John Carmack. "Probably even broader, though, is all of the people that Doom influenced — how many people decided that, after they saw this, they wanted to do something like this."
Released on December 10th, 1993, Doom was crafted by a small team at id Software and took about nine months to complete. In it, players took on the role of a space marine fighting off waves of demons; first, on a research station on one of the moons of Mars, then in the depths of hell itself. It was a dark and violent game, and that was a large part of its appeal. It's hard to forget the first time you fired a gun in Doom, or the way the marine’s face would become bloodied as he took damage.
"We did our job right because people remember it 20 years from the time that we wrote it."
"In retrospect, settling on the science fiction / action mold for Doom was absolutely the best decision that we could have made," says Carmack. "There are a lot of things like that on the project. Whenever I look back at all of the games I’ve participated in over the years, Doom was probably the most optimal. We hit the sweet spot on just about everything."
Doom was also a technical marvel. FPS games like Wolfenstein 3D (one of the many influential games Carmack worked on) had existed before, but they never looked this good or ran this well. The immersive perspective made the brutal action feel all the more realistic, and the technical wizardry it took to pull it off was far ahead of anything else available at the time. "When Doom came out, I gave up on programming for a year," says Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney. "Because this was some unimaginable witchcraft."
Compared to the side scrolling or top-down games that preceded it, the action of Doom felt much more visceral by virtue of the change in perspective. Shooting bad guys in Contra didn't quite feel the same as shooting them in Doom. That feeling is a large part of the reason the game was so influential — and it wasn't an accident. "We were consciously making a powerful, violent game to affect people," explains Carmack. "It wasn’t to be something that you could just play for a little while and then forget that you ever played. We did our job right because people remember it 20 years from the time that we wrote it. We made a mark on people, we left an impact. It was something that people cared about."
For better or worse, the violence of Doom is a large part of its legacy. For years the game was held up alongside Mortal Kombat and, later, Grand Theft Auto as an example of the destructive power of video games. Author and retired US military lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman infamously dubbed it a "mass murder simulator," while Doom was also blamed in part for tragedies like the Columbine High School shooting. This hasn't tarnished the game in the eyes of its creators, however. Carmack says that modern games that let you inflict violence on innocent civilians can make him uncomfortable, but the fact that you were essentially killing monsters made Doom's violence easier to stomach.
"The violence is central to what this entire game genre is about."
"The violence is central to what this entire game genre is about," he says, "but being able to be violent against demons that are threatening to destroy humanity, that gives you a good cause. I do not feel bad at all about the games that I’ve made, what their impact on people has been. I tend to think that it’s probably been a net positive."
And while Doom and its violence may have been seen as destructive to some, for others it was hugely influential. There are clear examples, such as the plethora of blockbuster first-person shooters that have come since Doom was first released, but the game has also touched other, less obvious portions of the game development community as well.
Thatgamecompany co-founder Jenova Chen was only 11 or 12 when he first played Doom, but he distinctly remembers the experience — the way the gun moved up and down in your hands, the tunnel vision-like effect that only let you see what was in front of you. It was terrifying. But it also sparked his curiosity. "Doom is my very first memory of a horror FPS," he says. "Since I really don't like horror as an emotion, I learned to stay away from the dark when we make games." He would go on to design decidedly non-violent games like Journey and Flower.
The influential nature of Doom was also apparent in its sequels. As part of Lunar Software, Aaron Foster is helping to craft the anticipated sci-fi horror game Routine. And while he says the original Doom was one of the first PC games he ever played, it was a later entry in the series that really cemented his love for the genre. “The first hour or two of Doom 3 was really quite terrifying for me when I first played it,” Foster explains, “but there was something else there that I loved more than feeling the fear.” He cites aspects like interactive computer screens and working arcade machines as important details for making a realistic sci-fi setting. “These small touches really helped make the world more believable,” says Foster, “and we are absolutely inspired by Doom 3 from an immersion standpoint for Routine.”
Last month Carmack announced that he would officially be leaving id, the company he helped create, to explore the future of virtual reality as the CTO of upstart Oculus VR. And it seems that one of the reasons for his departure is the current state of game development. In 1993 Carmack was able to help craft a huge, technologically advanced game like Doom with a small team and a short time frame, but that's simply not possible today. Blockbuster games can take years to make and budgets have ballooned into the tens of millions of dollars, making developers and publishers increasingly risk averse. "The single worst aspect in the change in games over the years is how much longer it takes to make them," Carmack says. "And the second most would be how many people it takes to make them."
"The single worst aspect in the change in games over the years is how much longer it takes to make them."
New platforms like mobile devices, Steam, and potentially even VR are helping to change this. Scrappy upstarts like the id of old can now get their games in front of huge audiences, and that's a part of the reason why some of the most innovative and influential games of today aren't coming from traditional game developers. Minecraft, for instance, was largely created by just one person, and it’s had a tremendous impact on the industry. It's entirely possible that the game we'll remember the most 20 years from now will be available on a phone; the next Doom could be on the Oculus Rift.
For all of the advances it made in technology and design, Doom's biggest legacy may just be the way it influenced a legion of designers, and showed how important video games can be. It was powerful in a way that previous games weren't. Everyone knows what Pac-Man and Pong are, but they never kept you up at night.
"Doom is a game that made an impact on a lot of people," says Carmack, "and I think a lot of those people went on to do some great things."
Sean Hollister contributed to this report.